Critics’ Picks

Manuel Botelho, 61.embs, 2007–2008, color photograph, 70 7/8 x 28 3/8".

Manuel Botelho, 61.embs, 2007–2008, color photograph, 70 7/8 x 28 3/8".


Manuel Botelho

Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Elvas
Rua da Cadeia
March 15–July 13, 2008

Manuel Botelho has stormed the Portuguese art scene with his latest project, “Confidencial/Desclassificado” (Confidential/Declassified), a series of three solo exhibitions that address a prominent subject in Portugal: the 1960s and early-1970s war with the country’s African colonies. Well known as a painter, Botelho has resorted to a new medium, photography, to build a body of work that nevertheless reflects the main characteristics of his practice: examination of historical issues, references to the Western pictorial tradition, and figuration as a stylistic signature. Every exhibition has its own subtitle, each of them indicating the topic that the artist explores: “Inventário” (Inventory), “Ração de combate” (Combat Ration), and “Emboscada” (Ambush). Taking place in a deactivated armory, “Inventário” best demonstrates Botelho’s approach, as he has created a fictional atmosphere informed by real events. Based on footage from the period, Inventário: mensagens de Natal (Inventory: Christmas Messages), 2007–2008, is a video that brings together typical combatant’s Christmas messages broadcast by Portuguese television and radio. Taken together, the sentimental dispatches present an official, state-sanctioned version of the African battlefield. This piece is complemented by a large group of deadpan-aesthetic photographs, displayed in a chartlike grids, that depict the weaponry of both the Portuguese and the African forces—from improvised single-shot firearms to the infamous G3 and AK-47 machine guns. Another set of three pictures, however, can be seen as the exhibition’s centerpiece. Surrounded by military gear and other elements such as a wine demijohn, a spectral figure—the artist himself, playing an old soldier—inhabits each of the images, either at rest or facing the viewer and receiving a golden star from someone’s hand. Alluding to religious iconography, these compositions combine the spirit of a classical altar painting with the formal qualities of sacrificial rituals. Examining a traumatic event through an allegorical narrative, Botelho probes Portuguese collective consciousness with sensitivity without failing to point out the political turmoil of the colonial era.